You can get a little music from a lot of places, but Spotify is on a quest to be your omni-jukebox. It's already offers on-demand streaming and radio, and it's just launched Browse, a new way to discover critic and community playlists for different moods and genres. Spotify hopes to combine social, algorithms, and expert curation to beat the platforms and become the only music companion you need.
“It's a really good time to be in music ” Spotify product manager Miles Lennon tells me. “Five years ago people wrote off the ability for music startups to succeed. We're really happy to be part of a resurgence.”
The only problem is music is becoming a commodity. Every smartphone manufacturer and operating system want to have their own music service, because the iPod proved that music is a fundamental part of the mobile experience. Apple has iTunes, and soon iTunes Radio. Google just launched Google Play Music All Access. Nokia and Samsung have their own, while HTC bought MOG. They all have the benefit of device pre-installations or preferred access.
How can Spotify compete? By being a music company. Not a “media company” that dabbles in video and books. Not an advertising company that uses music as a medium. And not a hardware company looking to round out its offering. Spotify just has to be a music company 100%.
That's the plan. Spotify now has over 24 million active users and over 6 million premium subscribers. A spokesman says its global headcount is now around 800, and financial filings show it doubled its revenue in 2012 to $533 million.
It's a good start, but Spotify is still struggling to convince people music is worth listening to ads or paying for after the Napster era convinced the world that music is free. Spotify Director and Napster co-founder Sean Parker has said that the only way to beat piracy is with convenience and accessibility, so Spotify is trying to put access to every music service you could want in one easy place.
A Little Bit Pandora, A Little Bit Songza
At first it just did on-demand streaming like Rdio and now Google Music, letting you play anything from a huge catalogue whenever you wanted at no cost per song. Then in late 2011 it barged into Pandora turf and with a radio service that learns from your tastes and lets you expand any artist or song into a station. Just this week Rdio also added adaptive radio stations and soon iTunes will enter this fray. In December, Spotify tackled social networks like Facebook and Twitter with new friend and influencer following capabilities.
Basically, if you knew exactly what you wanted to listen to, you could search for it, and if you didn't know or care, you could turn on the Spotify Radio. But what was missing was a more human touch. Often when we reach for music it's because we're in a particular mood or situation and wants sounds that match well. You could make your own digital mixtapes with Spotify, but many people don't have the time or expertise to constantly build fresh playlist.
It's this premise that's made Songza successful. The service suggests expert-chosen playlists for particular scenarios like stargazing, waking up for work, or when you're feeling romantic (time for the ”The Golden Age Of Slow Jams”).
So in May, Spotify acquired Songza competitor Tunigo, which it tells me powers the new Browse feature it just launched. Open up the tab and you'll see an array of playlist themes like Party, Chill, Mood, and Top Lists. Each contains a set of playlists - ones for dinner parties and dance parties, classical chilling or techno chilling, excitement or heartbreak, and top indie songs or top songs in Sweden.
Some of these come from music experts Spotify works with directly, and others are surfaced from the billions of playlists created by Spotify's users. Lennon says “If it's five minutes before friends arrive and you think ‘shoot, I haven't put together the music I need', you're two clicks away from a playlist designed for having friends over for dinner.” The launch could be tough on Songza but great for Spotify and its community.
“Browse is a great distribution system that's giving a lot of love to these playlists” Lennon explains to me. He believes that by netting subscribers and messages of thanks for normal users who build playlists, Spotify can offer “emotional reward” that endears them to its service.
Fostering that emotional connection also led Spotify to revamp its messaging features. The new Spotify inbox collects all your messages with each friend into lifetime threads of every piece of music you've shared. It also lets you start a new thread with someone without a song attached, so you can simply send some kudos for a great playlist of the posted on Facebook, or ask for recommendations. The new Spotify messages system is coming to desktop soon and mobile later.
Becoming The Omni-Jukebox
What's Spotify missing? Well you can't add your own songs like SoundCloud, buy MP3s like on iTunes, identify songs you hear like Shazam, or listen to live FM radio. Those last two could create new inroads to Spotify or suck in talk radio fans.
Spotify's also isn't pressuring celebrities to make playlists. Lennon insists, We don't need to go out and recruit celebrities because celebrities want to be curating on the service to connect with their fans.” Yet none of these organic celebrity playlists have reached the stellar popularity of “Hipster International”, Sean Parker's ever evolving mix that has over a 800,000 subscribers.
It does have exclusive content, though. Turning concert bootlegs like Robert Delong at SXSW or stripped-down studio sessions with bands like The 1975 into albums only available on Spotify keeps these artists; followings loyal to the service.
Still, Spotify now has the building blocks of an omni-jukebox. It just needs to make it better. A better way to save your favorite music to a collection, improved mobile navigation, and better personal profiles would smooth out Spotify's edges.
“It's important to have it all under one roof. Our hypothesis is that the best discovery experience will combine social - recommendations from people you trust, influencers, and artists; intelligent recommendation algorithms based on your listening history and tastes; and human curation by experts and millions of community members. The way we move the needle is by satisfying more use cases” Lennon tells me.
Breadth could be the answer to fighting off focused music services, outdoing the platform owners, and seducing the mainstream. If Spotify can fulfill all of your musical desires, your ears will never go astray.